Snarky's Cinemachine: No Country for Old Women

In the early '90s–before Goldeneye–I created a silly 'zine called "Judi Dench: Action Hero." In it I presented an alternate universe where Dame Judi Dench was a cheeky action hero in the manner of Bruce Willis or Jason Statham, complete with fake film posters, movie reviews and interviews with the woman herself–fashioned from my vivid imagination and repeat viewings of 84 Charing Cross Road and A Room with a View. Refashioning A Room with a View into A Room with a View to a Kill, Dench starred as Jane, a fashionable aging assassin - with the charm of Auntie Mame and the skills of The Jackal, who reflects on her life as a mother, lover and highly coveted assassin while sitting in a high rise, waiting for her final assignment. I would tell you more, but the film–as I conceived it–has a great trope-a-licious twist.

In 1995 I sat in a darkened theater awaiting the featured attraction, which was either Se7en or Die Hard with a Vengeance. The last preview trailer had a familiar sound–a jaunty little tune–and I sat up. As Pierce Brosnan appeared on the screen, my eyes started to water. As a rabid Bond fan from childhood, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise, I had waited nearly a decade for Brosnan to assume the tux and handle of 007.

When I saw Judi Dench's name in the credits, tears spilled down my cheeks. Critics heralded Dench's casting as M, the head of British Intelligence or MI5, as timely and refreshing. Dench's portrayal of M draws its inspiration from real life author and former MI5 Director-General Stella Rimington, the organization's first female DG.

Dench's verbal smackdown of Bond sets the tone for the character: "I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you." It was the "Oh snap!" moment feminist Bond fans–yes they do exist and I'm one of them–had been waiting for. Dench's M presents an intriguing portrayal of female power emphasizing wit, gravitas and intelligence, without reliance on unflattering stereotypes often utilized when depicting powerful females. M is deliberate without being ruthless, commanding respect and authority without regard to her diminutive stature. As a pocket-sized individual myself (Dame Judi is actually taller than me!) I appreciate her cinematic shout-out to all the short women who dream of wielding power from a step stool. Recent examples of powerful female characters on par with Dench's M are generally played by tall actresses: Geena Davis (Commander in Chief), Joan Allen (The Contender, Bourne Franchise) and Allison Janney (The West Wing) immediately come to mind. More importantly, the role of M has blazed past its previous bean counting and finger wagging origins, featuring many scenes which take place outside MI5 headquarters! Given the popularity of the character and Dench's sublime performance, why has Hollywood failed to replicate this success with other older actresses?

For starters, Hollywood has short memory when it comes to disastrous, bloated and costly projects starring those at the upper echelons of the kyriarchy. Stallone can deliver countless box office bombs, receive critical scorn, earn disappointing grosses, but more or less continue his cinematic assaults unabated. See: upcoming mildly anticipated August release The Expendables. There is one action film featuring a female lead–Salt, starring the lovely Ms. Angelina Jolie as a CIA spy who just might be a sleeper agent and it is already getting the "Cutthroat Island" sexist treatment, with some wondering if Jolie can actually carry a big, bad action film all by herself. The site Beyond Hollywood was explicit in its concern trolling, "Angelina Jolie tries to open an action movie by her little lonesome. The trailer looks excellent, but can Angelina Jolie actually open a movie? We'll see." We'll see? Were the Tomb Raider franchise, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Wanted not compelling enough evidence as to Jolie's box office appeal?

Geena Davis' fifteen-year old, double-fisted action film disappointments (Cutthroat Island, The Long Kiss Goodnight) are still served up as cautionary tales to discourage those interested in creating female fronted action films, yet Stallone's critical and box office embarrassing remake of the Michael Caine film Get Carter (2000) barely warrant mention–nor do the nearly half dozen subsequent bombs, including 2008's Rambo IV. I'm not picking on Stallone, whose Rocky saga nursed me through a bout of the flu when I was ten. However, I am questioning the financial wisdom of continuing to invest in his projects when there demonstrated proof his films fail to achieve on a critical or commercial level, since marketability and profit are often touted as the reason filmmakers shy away from action films featuring female leads.

Where's this summer's butt kicking Ripley? Why no big screen version of the iconic '80s cop procedural Cagney & Lacey? Surely a summer movie season with room for The A Team could find space for some Chris Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey action! Cate Blanchett offered promise in May's release of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, but the only action for Blanchett seemed to involve pinched expressions while getting on and off her horse.

As a feminist with a deep appreciation for the action genre, I often lament the paucity of female characters in pivotal roles not requiring skintight latex, hot pants or bouncy hair. Each summer the selection of films decreases and the roles get far more sexist in nature. I see you, Michael Bay. Forget casting a woman over forty to save the world. I guess that notion tests the limits of believability for Hollywood–an entity which finds no irony in unleashing a veritable antique roadshow in the form of an all star cast of aged action heroes in the aforementioned The Expendables. Don't get me wrong; I want to see well-seasoned male actors jumping out of planes, windows and various other inane plot devices, but I also want women doing their share of crashing Humvees into fruit stands and trash cans in hot pursuit of the villain.

During my stint as a guest blogger here, I want to discuss female roles in the action, suspense and thriller genres, given they are the most heavily promoted summer movies. Femalecentric films are usually released on the margin of the season–Sex and the City 2 in May and Julia Roberts' Eat, Pray, Loathe... er, Love in August–and positioned as "counter programming," which is a nice way of saying, "If Iron Man 2 sold out and you're already at the theater you can watch this instead."

I am a passionate film buff weaned on Dirty Harry, '70s Political Thrillers, tedious "important" films, and action movies. Despite loving my favorite films to pieces, as a feminist I yearn for a wider range of roles, lived experiences and diverse stories in the pop culture I consume. Viewing pop culture through the lens of my lived experiences as a black female, I find myself overly relying on pragmatism as I navigate through the minefield that is pop culture messaging. Going beyond merely isolating problematic elements in the films I choose to view, I am very much concerned with the overall messaging transmitted through the medium and what it has to say regarding lives on the margins. For loyal readers of Bitch, it is not merely enough for me to tick off everything offensive in the content. Critiquing pop culture with the goal of dismantling kyriarchy means constantly reassessing media consumption–since there is no such thing as perfect content–and making thoughtful choices regarding the content we consume. And more importantly, what costs are associated, as feminists, for consumption of imperfect content.

I believe this work–critiquing film imagery–is integral for feminists, specifically if it encourages those of us with a passion for the arts to create content devoid of the problematic elements we so often deconstruct. Through feminist analysis of pop culture consumption I have found my own approach to writing about a variety of topics, even fluffier ones, has become far more nuanced. The approach I use in my own blog actively seeks to be witty, smart and devoid of problematic elements. While I may not always succeed, I believe an active desire to be inclusive, supported by a feminist framework for all my writing–even when it's not necessarily feminist focused content–is my super power. I look forward to bringing my analytical voice to Bitch for the next eight weeks.

Comments

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Yay!

Yay! Looking very forward to this series. I really like your point about Judi Dench's height - the only other short intimidating woman I can think of is Edna Mole.

I enjoy that they don't try

I enjoy that they don't try to hide the fact she's short or prop her up in big heels. She just is her cute, short self and even Bond is appropriately respectful. She even got to interrogate a suspect in Quantum of Solace. Dench's M is totally bad ass.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Snarky's!

And where are the movie versions of female comic book action heroes? We've had multiple Iron Mans and Spidermans and Hulks and Batmans and X-Men... whereas Wonder Woman has languished in development hell for nearly ten years.

Seconded!

Not to mention the fact that the failures of Catwoman and Elektra are blamed on being about women, when it's really that they are terribly written movies that are not true to the characters.

Woot

I love this post! Looking forward to more awesome critique over the next eight weeks.

Awesomesauce

Yay! Looking forward to watching the Snarky's Cinemachine series evolve. Also, loved reading your take on Judi Dench in the Bond films, as she was my point of entry into the series (especially as a fellow short person). Prior to Goldeneye, I dismissed them as straight boy phallic gadget wish fulfillment.

Also, I'm interested in Salt because the premise looks delightfully implausible and I like watching Jolie kick ass. I'm glad that Jolie got the part, as I read somewhere that originally written with a man in mind. We had to fight for just one more action heroine. :-/

Alyx Vesey

It was offered to Cruise who

It was offered to Cruise who opted to reunite with his Vanilla Sky co-star Cameron Diaz - because it worked out so well last time - for an action film (the name escapes me) that doesn't look entirely terrible.

The Bond series was often times incredibly problematic, but it was also a place to see many different races of women positioned as beautiful. I remember being so excited watching "Live and Let Die" and seeing a Bond girl who had cute afro just like my mom! It also seemed to eschew colorism in its casting of black actresses as Bond girls (there have been four or five, depending on whether one is strictly canonical) from sweet honey of Miss Halle to the deep ebony of the delectable Ms. Grace Jones. Any series that says, "Grace Jones is a sexy chick." is gets a few cookies for trying.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Great post! As another

Great post! As another feminist who enjoys action/suspense movies - but also has to navigate the problematic narratives and representations in these genres - I look forward to reading your entries!

misty-eyed

I totally got a little choked up when I first saw Judi Dench in the Bond moment because she was so perfectly cast and then she so perfectly nailed it, and I can't help be moved by greatness, especially when it's a hot woman smartly dressing down someone in need.

And for the record, my friend Jyl really likes the movie Elektra! I still remain suspicious, but I'm sure I will end up watching it someday soon.

My dad likes both Elektra

My dad likes both Elektra and Catwoman! My mother finds this amusing.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

once I saw that Sharon Stone

once I saw that Sharon Stone is in Catwoman, I was shocked I didn't make a trip to the theaters. She makes the best bad movies!

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http://www.araymondjohnson.com

The time is so now for

The time is so now for characters in this vein!

great writing, Snarky. Fun

great writing, Snarky. Fun theme too - my first fav movie was Rambo, second Thelma and Louise -looking forward to reading.

Great post!

Wish we could see your "Judi Dench: Action Hero" zine and please please please tell us all about A Room With a View to a Kill. Judi Dench is my action hero!

Brilliant idea for a film!

I read your post all the way through thinking, "Oh, if only I could see the Judi-as-aging-assassin film! Or the graphic novel it will have been based on!" I'm sure the spinning trope is fab. If I had a few millions to spare, I would request a treatment immediately! Also, point well taken regarding actors diminutive in size only. Those who can command the power without the physical stature seem to come from the stage--maybe playing on raked stages gives them delusions of grandness.... Helen Mirren's only 5'4". Imelda Staunton is tiny. But scary. And there's Kristin Chenoweth....

MY CAST FOR AN ALL-FEMALE EXPENDABLES

Pam Grier, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock, Meiko Kaji, Tura Satana, Christina Lindberg, Linda Hamilton, and Sigourney Weaver.

If you think people give you crap for being a female action fan, try being a female kung fu movie fan!

oo what about angela bassett?

oo what about angela bassett?

She was awesome in STRANGE

She was awesome in STRANGE DAYS.

Yes! This is fantastic! I

Yes! This is fantastic! I demand a reprint of the Judi Dench Action Hero zine.

I'd also love to see a kick-butt female western! Now there's a genre that could use a kick in the chaps.

"I believe this work–critiquing film imagery–is integral for feminists, specifically if it encourages those of us with a passion for the arts to create content devoid of the problematic elements we so often deconstruct."

Shutting it down, once again, Snarky. This is so, so, so important. I hardly go to movies anymore and I can't tell you how many times I go out to art shows excited, only to have my heart drop when I see the wonky, half-assed, overly self-aware art that lacks awareness of context, culture or the world around them.

Yee haw!

Yes! A kick-butt female western! I grew up loving movies like Support Your Local Sheriff, Paint Your Wagons, and a bit more recently, Tombstone. But for the most part, women are relegated to the sidelines in these films. I would *love* to see a western with female protagonists!

Let's see... Who'd make a good wild west sheriff? I want to say Kim Dickens, but that's probably because she played Joanie in Deadwood (which did have some great female characters but they were still on the margins most of the time). Maybe Patricia Clarkson?

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

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Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Someday, I will try to watch

Someday, I will try to watch the movie version of Aeon Flux again. Maybe.

Loved this. Classic Snarky-skewering and insight!

An alarming mix of humor, politics, pop culture, and queeritude. Author of Bumbling into Body Hair: Tales of an Accident-Prone Transsexual.

we're getting there

Very enjoyable posting. I'm a huge Dame Judi Dench fan, so well done there. I"m writing an action hero (late thirties, and tall but you write what you know). I've noted more ladies kicking ass in the cinema in the past few years, notabley Ms. Jolie and I expect others what with now a woman winning the oscar for best directing, and there being more women writers out there of a certain age. We have had our own adventures, and in my case, some of them were quite physical indeed, and things went boom.

It's nice to hear that a strong female lead as action hero is what is wanted.

Good points all around! I

Good points all around! I would so love to see your Judi Dench action movie, seriously! It's so frustrating that really admirable female action stars are either on the fringe or nonexistent. I find myself relegated to looking for good qualities in the requisite female sidekicks, who more often than not are just victimized love interests.